This is a version of the talk I gave at the fantastic Improving Reality conference, curated by Honor Harger and hosted by Lighthouse. I was part of the first session, 'The Edge of Reality,' alongside Warren Ellis, Joanne McNeil and Leila Johnston, all of who gave very good talks.
This talk was an exploration of some of the themes we are currently exploring in our Lab, and as our projects develop further, my position on the ideas presented will evolve. For now, here's the synopsis, followed by the deck of slides.
'From re-engineered mosquitoes designed to stop dengue fever, to super powered athletes accused of gene-doping, our current news stories seem to have leapt straight out of science fiction. Flesh, blood and DNA are our new materials and the technologies to use them are fast becoming open source. We are creating a ‘third kingdom’ of ‘hybrid objects’ that are neither ‘natural’ nor ‘artificial’ but something entirely new. My talk explored how designers and artists play a key role in developing cultural understanding of these ‘objects’ by decoding and speculating on our relationships and interactions with these new hybrid forms.'
Since we are all still enjoying the Olympic fever, I am sure most of you are familiar with the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen who won the 400m race by swmming faster than her male counterparts. She was rapidlyaccused of 'gene doping', with the Daily Mail quick to spit out this headline.
Another headline that caught my attention referenced designer babies.
And then there was the story of an artificial jellyfish made from proteins found in the cells of a rat's heart and a sheet of silicone.
Named Medusoid, here we can see the jellyfish floating gracefully in its little water incubator.
One final news story, about the British firm Oxitec, who have designed genetically modified mosquitoes designed to eradicate dengue fever.
Much like Atwood’s world of Oryx and Crake, these news stories of genetically modified humans and chimerical animals sound like elements from a science fiction novel – with these edge-cases challenging our ability to sort things into neat categories. Is it nature? Is it artificial?Is it machine?
A common thread that runs through the stuff these stories talk about is the way people are starting to use DNA, the very stuff we are made of, as a raw material. We're constructing not only ourselves, but what might be 'natural' around us – just like we construct chip sets or political systems, creating a new genre of hybrid objects.
The modification of biological organisms is not new, We have intervened with nature for a long time now. For instance, I am not even sure we remember what ‘wild chickens’ look like.
Then there are the Atomic Seeds; hugely popular after the second World War, when people were preocuppied with the idea of using the power of the atom for beneficial purposes. Enthusiasts bombarded a wide variety of plants with radiation hoping to produce genetic mutations such as disease-resistent wheat and more sugary sugar maples. Actually, we’ve made some at Superflux.
We have also seen unintentional modifications in the natural world around us. These beautiful illustrations of bugs by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, are in fact insects she found near Chernobyl. Exposure to radiation has resulted in mutations such as asymmetrical wings and eye-cysts, almost as if they had started to become "prototypes of a future nature".
We have not spared ourselves either – creating hybrid humans; cyborgs or cybernetic beings with both biological and artificial enhancements. In fact, if a cyborg is someone who uses a machine to enhance one's biological self then arguably these cyclists could be considered cyborgs as well. None of them are thinking "I am on a machine and I must remember to pedal..." In many ways the idea of a cyborg is now a lived reality. So what makes these news stories, the sort of hybrids these stories talk about, any different? And why is it especially relevant today? I think there are couple of things worth considering.
One is the way these new kinds of hybrids are ‘made’. Considering Oscar Pistorius, you know where you stand: even as he accused Alan Oliveira of using longer blades that gave him a distinct advantage, they are still fighting over something that is easily measurable. Or if it comes to drug doping, you feel you have control and knowledge of the input and the results.
With capability that is not manufactured, but designed to ‘grow’ inside of our bodies or that of plants and animals, and when it becomes possible to ‘edit and design’ living organisms, then that's a whole different matter. This sort of 'stuff' makes us a bit more uncomfortable and confused. For instance, when a fantastical animal – a spider goat demon – as imagined by Albertus Seba in his book Cabinet of Natural Curiosities from the 18th century...
...becomes real, we have little choice but to sit up and take notice. This is Freckles: she is part of the first generation of transgenic goats. Before she was born, she had a spider's genes added to her genome, causing her to produce spider silk protein in her milk. This protein can now be extracted and spun into silk which is desirable for its incredible strength.
Secondly, we have to consider the intensity with which these ‘hybrids’ are being 'made,' and the increasing accessibility of the technologies we can use to 'make' them. In fact, at this very moment, more then 1500 undergraduate students are designing new biobricks to submit to the iGEM competion 2012, the Olympics of synthetic biology.
They are attempting to build simple biological systems from standard, interchangeable parts, deploying them in living cells. The resulting DNA strands and data will be submitted as biobricks into a registry which serves as an online catalogue for hundreds of standardised genetic parts. In this image, a team have designed the E.coli bacteria to respond to red light by changing their color. Images projected onto the colonies would become fixed, and in this instance, they created a 'photograph' of Albert Einstein.
When what might be perceived as ‘nature’ merges with with science, technology and politics, what sort of new categories of ‘things’ will be needed? And when the techniques to 'make' them become easier to access, who will be designing, manufacturing and distributing? Like the cyborg was to the 20th century, what will be the prototypes for this new 21st century ‘nature’? These questions interest and excite me because, as a designer, I want to be involved in the shaping of this new world.
And that's what we do at Superflux. We are a design studio interested in ways in which emerging technlogies intersect with our everyday lives, whether its through products, systems, services, or stories. Through these intersections, we explore the uncertainties around such new technologies to design for the 'imminently probable'.
One of the ongoing projects in our studio focuses on the design of prosthetic vision – the idea being to restore some form of vision to people with visual impairment such as retinitis pigmentosa. This is possible due to the incredible science of optogenetics, combining gene therapy with an optoelectronic prosthesis.
>Here is a short video in which our principal collaborator and scientist Dr. Patrick Degenaar explains his work:
While this research is still in its early stages, to understand how people might react to their new vision, the scientists have been carrying out some image augmentation tests. They prepared these sorts of cartoonised versions of the world, assuming that, while the resolution is limited, people who cannot see would feel better to start seeing the world in an enhanced, simplified ‘outline’.
To their surprise, people said things like: “I’d rather be blind then have my world look like this.” As scientists, they were approaching this technology from a data-driven perspective, assuming that people want to be able to see something, even if that might not be the case. As designers, we often ask what our experiences of and with technology feel like; focusing on a human-centric approach over efficiency. As science and engineering illuminate what's possible, how can we, as designers, help zero in on what's preferable?
With this new kind of bio-optoelectronic prosthetic, which is almost like a scart lead plugged to your brain, what kind of possibilities open up? Could those with this prosthetic start to see in electromagnetic spectrums not visible to the 'normally sighted'?
We decided to try and bring this vision to life. Working with specialist camera equipment, we filmed in these different spectrums to get a real sense of what the world would look like.
In our film, Song of the Machine, a mundane narrative, ambient cityscape, and offbeat score set the scene for exploring the electromagnetic spectrums and visual 'channels' of the protagonist's sensory perceptions. Ultraviolet, infrared, and augmented reality extend his world, with digital artifacts and noise hinting at the technical limitations of this low-res vision.
This experiential, speculative work allowed the scientists to understand the possibilities offered by their research. This in turn enables us to make the work more grounded, as we start to design the entire prosthetic ecosystem and package this technology in a way that people will find useful and meaningful.
Another level of engagement as a designer is to challenge ourselves by exploring alternate pathways for the near future. Whilst many of our individual futures are perhaps locked in an ever hopeful world of exotic holidays and freedom from mortgage payments, what happens when we think about our collective futures? Putting out an open call, I invited people to explore this question, for a project called Power of 8.
Over several workshops, eight of us attempted to build a optimistic vision of our collective futures.
While it was our hope to create something optimistic, what emerged was perhaps a little more problematic – an alternative ecosystem of strange machines and modified nature.
One element of this ecosystem was the Beamer Bee, or the synthetic bee – designed by the biotechnologist in our team.
We imagined idyllic scenarios of people using these bees to grow food in their gardens...
...or following people on their way home on warm summer evenings...
...as well as children who kept glowing bees as pets.
But alongside our forward-facing, community-oriented visions, are darker possibilities around the militarization of animals. In the Second World War, the American army created the bat bombs by attaching incendiary devices to bats, with an ambition to destroy entire Japanese villages by letting the bats 'drop' the bombs. The only reason they decided not to deploy the bat bombs was because the technology was rended irrelevant by the invention of the atom bomb.
And then there's a dolphin used to locate underwater mines.
Defence and intelligence personnel around the world are toying with the idea of using miniature drones disguised as bugs or insects for spying purposes. An ongoing project at DARPA called Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems investigates these very 'opportunities'.
So, whats stopping someone making ‘natural’ drones from insects and bugs? Could our rather beautiful 'synthetic' bees become the world's first 100% 'natural drones' ? Living in nature like any other insect or bird, whilst also working as little surveillance machines? This is where it starts to become interesting, and quite unsettling. It's also the space where apologues situated within our popular culture can help explore unforeseen implications of such technologies, and that is where speculative design can be most useful; a means of helping suspend disbelief, allowing us to experience alternate worlds as they juxtapose with our lived realities today.
In another ongoing project we are exploring some of the complexities that emerge when these technologies which happen to be fringe, avant garde or limited to the far-future start to rub up against contemporary models of capitalism and ownership – not only on a personal level, but on a global scale.
Aside from the actual making of hybrids, current news is also covered with murky stories around gene patenting, whether its the seedy and greedy Monsanto trying to patent yet another strain of seeds or...
...the ongoing battle between the courts and Myriad Genetics, a company who is trying to patent two cancer genes that it ‘discovered’ in some people during its tests.
Who owns our genes? Who can patent them? Will we have patented children? And is there a new opportunity for a deviant entrepreneur to step in and sell 'pirated genes' for those who cannot afford to get the patented genes? How would healthcare models adapt to these new changes? How will we value human life?
In our ongoing project, 'Genetic Stock', we are designing a scenario where genome sequencing, profiling and modification have become the norm. In this scenario, we are exploring the potential healthcare costs of gene combinations. The algorithm we are designing - calculates insurance premium costs based on specific gene combinations, and their associated risks.
For instance, in this chromosome number 9, a high risk of Alzheimers is detected, which could potentially increase this individual’s premium payments.
In many ways, this talk is a rallying cry to think about all of this as a new space for design, a space which is no longer about the design of static objects, and perhaps requires a more liquid approach. While epigenetic expression means we might never fully understand what the 'mutated products' will look like, we can attempt to deal with such uncertainty through design. Additionally, I'd also like to use this opportunity to invite people to slow down and be more deliberate and conscious about what is happening around us, instead of being sucked into passive consumption by corporations like Monsanto. By situating ourselves in the heart of the legal, political and economic implications of a world where flesh, blood and DNA are being used and abused, we can play important roles in continuing our quest to understand what it means to be human.
Thanks to Honor and Lighthouse for inviting me, and special thanks to team Superflux – Justin, Jon and Raphael – who are equally responsible for the way this talk has shaped up.